Despite tall claims by the Pakistani establishment of successes being scored by its military in the war against Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and normalcy being fast restored in the troubled Swat and South Waziristan regions, the situation in various areas of the tribal belt remains disturbed. No foreign media sources are being allowed into the area. A few hand-picked Pakistani journalists have, however, been apparently carefully manipulated to report on the Swat situation on the basis of Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) briefings that naturally claim near or fast returning normalcy.
The operations in Swat which began in April have not been able to restore civilian administration and despite the massive presence of the Pakistan Army sporadic acts of violence continue. Moreover, indications are that the military is likely to stay put in Swat and adjoining areas permanently. According to Dr. Hassan Askari Rizvi, the noted Pakistani expert on strategic affairs, the Army is likely to continue to assist the civilian administration find its feet in Swat for at least another year. As for the longer run, he alludes to the Army’s plans to set-up a permanent Military Cantonment in Swat.
A similar scenario exists with respect to the military operations in South Waziristan and the situation there. Military operations commenced in South Waziristan on October 16, 2009, after weeks of preparatory strikes and military encirclement of the area. South Waziristan has an area of 6,500 square kilometres and a population of 429,841. Of these, according to UN aid agencies, nearly 330,000 people have taken refuge in camps in Dera Ismail Khan and Tank. The Pakistan Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas claimed before the media on November 17 that “major towns and population centres have been secured” in South Waziristan and that the Army has disrupted the militants’ food supply chain. A day earlier Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, though, had conceded that no time frame could be laid down for the conclusion of South Waziristan operations. He just hoped that they would conclude successfully well before time.
Notwithstanding claims by the Pakistan establishment, it is clear that the Army is bogged down in large-scale counter-insurgency operations in FATA. Nearly 80,000 troops were involved in FATA operations beginning 2004 under ‘Operation Al-Mijan’. This number was boosted by nearly 120,000 more troops before operations in Swat and Malakand were launched in April 2009, and by an additional 50,000 to 60,000 troops before the South Waziristan operations commenced. According to titbits appearing in the media, local commanders in FATA are demanding an additional 70,000 troops to fully control and sanitize the area. Thus, the Pakistan Army has already committed, or needs to commit, a total of around 350,000 troops for combat duty in FATA, out of its total strength of 800,000. Despite this, the situation remains disturbed enough to force even the UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Pakistan, Martin Mogwanja, to call (on November 6) for the safety and security of aid workers engaged in aid operations among Internally Displaced Persons from Swat and South Waziristan.
The overall situation in FATA is unfolding along feared lines. Before the Pakistan establishment resorted to its usual militaristic sledgehammer approach to solving internal problems, it was assessed by many that the FATA quagmire would suck in a large number of Pakistani troops on a permanent or pretty long-term basis. Initial operations against Islamist trouble makers were expected to quickly turn into messy and stamina-sapping counter-insurgency operations. It was also assessed that even though the Pakistan Army would be able to drive the Taliban underground, or even make them flee from FATA to adjoining areas in Afghanistan, they would keep returning from there to harass the army through sporadic hit-and-run raids. This also seems to be coming true. Pakistan’s worst nightmare at the moment seems to be that if the United States were to increase troop deployment and military activity in the Afghan areas across FATA through a planned ‘surge’, it could force the FATA’s Taliban cadres to return to their home bases and make the Pakistan Army’s task of containing the situation that much more difficult. The recent communication sent by President Obama to his Pakistani counterpart, through US National Security Adviser James Jones, asking Pakistan to expand its fight against Taliban confirms these Pakistani fears. Pakistani officials are reported to have conveyed to their American counterparts their sense of disquiet over Obama’s new strategy.
As anticipated, with the intensification of military operations in FATA, terror strikes by Taliban and their local allies have intensified at various places in NWFP and Punjab, particularly in and around Peshawar and Rawalpindi-Islamabad. Even the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters (GHQ) has been attacked in the heart of Rawalpindi Cantonment and senior Army officers ambushed in broad daylight in the centre of high security Islamabad. The Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) offices have been attacked in Peshawar and other places including in Lahore and Islamabad. There are almost daily suicide bombings taking a huge toll of lives in various parts of Pakistan, and particularly in NWFP, Punjab and the Federal Capital area. According to Rahimullah Yusufzai, the noted Pakistani journalist, “No place is safe in Peshawar nowadays – not even the military, police and government installations that are supposed to protect the people.” Except for Qatar Airways, all other Gulf-based airlines have stopped flying to Peshawar, despite it being a very lucrative destination for them. A number of media reports have also underlined the almost catastrophic impact of the current disturbances on Pakistan’s economy, particularly foreign investments.
Educational institutions in most parts of Pakistan are now functioning not as schools but as fortresses after the recent bombing of the International Islamic University in Islamabad. This incident is significant and has clear ideological overtones. The Islamic University, set-up with official Saudi patronage, supports and propagates the traditional ‘status-quoist’ Islam that suits the Saudi monarchy (i.e., a Court Islam) and the British oriented ruling set-up in countries like Pakistan. It also supports and encourages education for women. But this is opposed by the Wahabi al -Qaeda and Deobandi Taliban. Therefore, the attack on this institution, particularly its women’s wing, conveys an important and bloody message. It is interesting to note that the first move by Taliban and other Islamist radicals in launching jehad in a new area has been to systematically attack and destroy various centres of ‘un-Islamic western oriented’ education at the very first instance. Schools have naturally borne the burnt of this tactic and this is what is now being feared in Punjab and other parts of the country.
Another very disturbing aspect of the current phase of Islamist militancy in Pakistan is that the terrorist acts outside FATA and NWFP are not being staged by ethnic Pashtun elements but by local Punjabi cohorts. These elements are mostly based in South Punjab, which is increasingly being compared with South Waziristan in terms of Islamist radicalism and militancy. In fact, there are claims that many militants fighting alongside Taliban in Afghanistan and FATA hail from South Punjab seminaries being run by the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). They were recruited and trained in the militant training facilities of these organisations in the area and have regularly been returning to their home bases there after carrying out terrorist missions in FATA and Afghanistan against Pakistani or American forces. According to Ayesha Siddiqa, the noted Pakistani political analyst, South Punjab has become the hub of jihadism.
South Punjab is described as an area comprising 13 districts: Bhawalnagar, Bhawalpur, Bhakkar, Dera Ghazi Khan, Jhang, Khanewal, Layyah, Lodhran, Multan, Muzaffargarh, Rahimyar Khan, Rajanpur and Vehari. Its estimated population is 27 million. Compared to the rest of Punjab, this area has remained backward and cocooned in a time warp. The government and its agencies have exercised lesser control over South Punjab and have left its tribal oriented feudal structure intact. The local sardars were virtually running their fiefdoms in the area, going to the extent of ‘appointing’ their favourites as local government functionaries. The hold of these local chiefs was, however, getting eroded for many years due to the expansion in influence and activities of officially supported religious hard line groups. These groups have been setting up their base in the area to recruit cadres and train them in connivance with the state for carrying out pogroms against Shias and other religious minorities within as well as for the jehad in Kashmir. Over a period of time, the traditional sardars were pushed to the background and jehadist groups came to dominate the area completely. According to Shireen Mazari, a journalist and strategic affairs expert who hails from the area, there are 185 registered madarssas in Dera Ghazi Khan alone of which 90 are Deobandi, 84 Barelvi, six Ahl-e-Hadis while five belong to the Shia Fiqh Jafaria. Most receive foreign funding. The total number of students in Deobandi madarssas alone was 11,535. Similarly, in Bahawalpur, there are an estimated 1,000 madarssas, most of which are controlled by JeM. Jaish has recently acquired a huge plot of land outside Bahawalpur town, which is believed to be the new centre for providing arms training to its cadres. However, concerned Pakistani officials dismiss this suggestion.
In the past the agendas of the Pashtun Taliban and the (South) Punjab-based Islamist radical organisations differed in focus. Groups on the Deobandi spectrum like the LeJ were created by the ISI to subdue Shiite assertiveness on issues like (pro-Sunni) Islamization process or the Christian demand for greater religious freedom and protection. Others like JeM had an anti-India agenda. However, the 2007 Lal Masjid incident in Islamabad made South Punjab groups change direction and develop a joint mission with Pashtun Taliban to overthrow the current Pakistani Government which began to be seen as the enemy and to usher in a Shariat based order. A great deal of operational synergy developed between the two sides and South Punjab groups started sending volunteers to fight along with the Pashtun Taliban in Afghanistan and FATA (between 3000 to 8000 at present). As the fighting in FATA intensified, they started to carry out terrorist attacks against government targets in Punjab. In 2008, there were 78 terrorist attacks in Punjab in which 257 security personnel and 34 civilians were killed. Almost all these incidents were reported to have been carried out by South Punjab based militants. The attack earlier this year on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore and the recent attack on GHQ in Rawalpindi have also been attributed to cadres from South Punjab.
Pakistani security forces lack the will and the capability to deal with this terrorist infrastructure in South Punjab. The Army and ISI, which had patronised the South Punjab groups as part of their strategy to ‘bleed India with a thousand cuts’, had never thought until recently (i.e., 2004-05) that their own protégés would turn against them and, therefore, had left no mechanism in place to rein in these groups if ever such a need arose. It was hoped even in the post 2004-05 period that if these groups began to strain at the leash, they could be tamed through the good offices of their patron political parties. However, these groups have built up considerable strength and reach among a section of the population based on religious and sectarian affinities and their mosque-madarssa network has been far more effective in creating mass support for them than the institutions of the official and political agencies. The local Police is totally ineffective in dealing with these Islamist radicals, or worse, is sympathetic to them. The only other force present in the area, the Punjab Rangers, is not only poorly trained, but also under the influence of the local sardars who have chosen not to confront these radicals. In an interview to a TV channel in October 2009, Maj. Gen. Yaqub Khan of the Punjab Rangers admitted that there was free movement of militants between South Waziristan and Dera Ghazi Khan, which his force was not in a position to check. Its charter and deployment were limited to securing a gas-pipeline passing through the area. Thus, despite confirmed knowledge of arms training being imparted to militants in the area and their linkages with Pakistani Taliban, there is no mechanism to deal with them.
The Americans are aware of the situation and are putting considerable pressure on the Pakistan Government to urgently take measures to deal with the looming crisis in South Punjab. The Pakistanis are in a bind. They do not have additional reserves to send to this area, where in any case a military operation on the pattern of FATA cannot be launched. Firstly, unlike FATA, this area is thickly populated and a sledgehammer approach to squashing militancy along the FATA pattern would lead to unacceptable collateral damage. Moreover, South Punjab is the homeland of Punjabis and any crackdown in the area could adversely affect the already bruised cohesiveness of the Pakistan Army as an institution. Therefore, newer tactics seem to be unfolding to deal with Islamist terrorism in Punjab.
The contours of this strategy that are now becoming clearer suggest that refusing to learn from its past experiences in clandestinely raising non-state players to further the state’s internal and external agenda, the Pakistan establishment (i.e., the ISI and the Army) are once again trying to raise another non-state player to deal with Taliban. Some determined efforts are being presently made to rope in the evangelical Tabligh Jamaat (TJ) movement to counter Taliban’s radical influence in Punjab in general and South Punjab in particular. The TJ is a mass movement among the Sunni Deobandis, which steers clear of sectarian and fiqh differences. Through its voluntary bands of part time preachers, who in their day-to-day life lead totally routine lives like other citizens, TJ promotes basic Islamic values and practices as laid down by Deobandi dogma. Many of its volunteers are retired military personnel, including a large number of senior officers. Through its espousal of the basics of the religion, TJ, according to many, strengthens fundamentalist traits among Deobandi masses. This has ideologically helped militant groups. In the past some links were discovered between TJ in Pakistan and the militant group Harkat-ul Mujahideen (HuM). However, the TJ has not come out openly in support of the jehad presently being waged by Taliban and its associated groups in Pakistan. This has generated some tension between the two sides and TJ’s congregations at its Pakistani centre in Raiwind (near Lahore) were being held amidst tight security for the past few years.
Just before the TJ’s annual congregation this year, (Raiwind, November 12 to 15), there was a day-long meeting of a group of 50 very senior retired Pakistan military officers associated with the TJ movement. Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Javed Nasir, the former head of the ISI, presided over the meeting; other participants included Admiral (Retd.) Karamat Rehman Niazi, the former Pakistan Navy Chief; Lt. Gens. (Retd.) Agha Masood Hasan and Aftab Ahmed, as well as many other former Major Generals and Brigadiers. GHQ had apparently blessed the venture. The meeting discussed the need and propriety of politicising the TJ’s agenda in the context of the current situation in the country. The Pakistan TJ Chief (Amir) Maulana Abdul Wahab, however, went along with the idea very reluctantly. The Maulana alluded to Prophet Muhammad’s life in Mecca in his early years when he tolerated all violence and criticism from infidels and patiently focussed on preaching Islam. Nonetheless, the Maulana asked the assembled ex-military men that being the main force behind the TJ they should start planning the direction that the forthcoming congregation should take. The Pakistan media has not been very forthcoming on the deliberations at the congregation, which is reported to have taken place amidst the tightest security ever. Nor have its decisions been highlighted. Only The News (November 16) carried a report on the congregation and underlined the fiery anti-Taliban sentiments expressed by some of its participants who described the Taliban as “un-Islamic” and “enemies of Islam”.
It is clear that the Pakistan establishment has managed to rope in the TJ to play the role of a non-state player to ideologically take on Taliban. It is however a double-edged weapon. TJ is a mass movement of the Deobandis and its anti-Taliban call would certainly have some impact on the Pakistan government’s efforts to strengthen such sentiments. It may also possibly help drive a wedge between Taliban and their South Punjab based cohorts belonging to TeJ and JeM. However, it would also open up TJ’s leaders and cadres to Taliban attacks, just as the latter have been targeting Barelvis and others. Prevention of such attacks is clearly beyond the means of the Pakistan government. Would it then lead to the arming of the TJ supporters for self-defence? How would the Pakistan Government ensure that this new armed non-state player also does not go out of control after a period of time and trigger the process of ‘Lebanonization’ of Pakistan? Pakistan is passing through desperate times and its government seems to be clutching at straws in the hope of stemming the Taliban tide. Despite having burnt its hands through the policy of toying with non-state armed players in the past, it is set to repeat the experiment once again? Only time will tell whether this experiment would succeed.
NOTE: This IDSA Comment was earlier posted under the title "Islamic Radicalism in Pakistan: From FATA to South Punjab".